In one of my favorite books, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, author Eric Weiner writes the following:
“I keep scanning the shelves and spot a copy of Areh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation. This is a classic. It’s the book that many of the people in Tzfat tell me drew them to Kabbalah in the first place. When I first heard of the book, I didn’t know what to think. Jewish meditation? I picture a group of middle-aged men and women sitting in the lotus position, silently worrying that their children won’t amount to anything.”
The truth is, sitting on the cushion we can worry about a whole bunch of things. Did I remember to pay the electricity bill? What am I going to wear to the wedding next month? Is the headache I’ve been having merely a headache or is it something more sinister requiring an MRI?
We notice our thoughts are jumping from story to story and we return to the breath, inhaling and exhaling. We try not to judge the mind— its nature of clinging to thought after thought. We remind ourselves that our kids will most likely amount to something. We breathe.
A few months ago, a Zen center opened in my hometown of Marblehead, MA. Sitting in Zazen (Zen meditation) with eyes open, we practice just sitting, just breathing, just being. The Zen priest emphasizes that while we sit together, each experience on the cushion belongs to that person, and that person alone. Perhaps the person sitting beside you on the Zafu (meditation cushion) begins laughing. Or begins crying. You are not to intervene. That is that person’s experience, and you are to stay present in your own.
But there is energy, sitting beside someone on a cushion. There is a connection. For a few weeks, I sat on a cushion beside Mark. I met Mark for the first time at a half-day Zen retreat at the center. He had grey hair that hung to the middle of his back, and a beard that touched base around the center of his chest. He looked like he could have just stepped out of Woodstock, and he had a twinkle in his eyes and a soft, gentle smile.
Each morning, at the 6 am sitting, I would walk into the Zendo (the meditation hall) and I would sit down on the cushion beside Mark. Because all is silent, we wouldn’t say hello. Instead, we would acknowledge one another by putting our palms together and offering a slight bow.
After walking and sitting meditation, the sangha (the community of practitioners) often met to socialize for a bit. Buddhism is all about letting go of attachments, including ideas, so it was good for me to have one of my expectations challenged. I had assumed, that first day when we sat down to talk, that it would be over tea. I mean who doesn’t associate Zen with elaborate tea ceremonies and such? Actually, it wasn’t over green tea at all— it was over a French press coffee maker that made coffee as strong as the Java I drank in the Netherlands last fall when I was visiting our daughter in the Hague. I should mention that I typically drink decaf and prefer a gentle vanilla flavored coffee, so this was pretty intense for me. But I loved it. Mark would often be in charge of making the coffee, and when he finished, he typically poured me the first cup. We drank extremely strong coffee chatting with the other meditators and with each other. I always felt very awake and alive during these times. Of course, that’s what the Buddha taught: to wake up to our lives as they truly are. I was either heading down the road to enlightenment with my wakefulness and aliveness, or it was the adrenal rush from the caffeine jolt to my body. Or, perhaps in a more Buddhist sense, it was a balance of the two. Mark had shared with me that he made guitars. I had told him that when I was in middle school, I took guitar lessons, though I haven’t played in over forty-five years. I shared with him that while I no longer played, and probably could only remember a handful of chords, I still had my ¾ Gibson part folk, part electric guitar. He asked me if I’d be interested in selling it, and that it was probably worth four or five thousand dollars at this point. I promised one day I’d bring it over.
One evening, at the Zendo for a meditation sitting, Mark abruptly jumped up from his cushion and left the center. Later that night in a Zen class, the Zen priest explained that even when someone has an experience that leads them out of the center, it is not for us to jump up after him or her. It is their experience. We need to honor that.
The following week, walking into the meditation hall early in the morning, I was happy to see Mark back on the cushion, and I took my place on the cushion to his right. After meditation, I lingered over the fuel-laden coffee chatting with Mark and the others. At one point Mark left the room with the Zen priest and they didn’t come back. Someone told me later that morning that they had left together to talk about some things. I figured it likely had something to do with what had sent him fleeing from the cushion a few evenings before.
A handful of days later, at an afternoon sitting, the Zen priest had told us that Mark was taking a week off from coming to the Zen center because he wasn’t feeling well. He asked that we send him offers of healing during our prayer service after zazen.
Because of some travel, schedule changes and my parents visiting me from out of town, I didn’t go to the center for the past three weeks.
I learned this past weekend that Mark had died.
I hardly knew him, and yet I can’t stop thinking about him. His gentle smile; his kind ways. I miss him. I miss sitting by him and I miss drinking morning coffee with him.
There is a Zen chant that goes like this:
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Take heed.
Do not squander your life.
I look at the month of knowing Mark, and wonder how it might have been different had I known it was his last month on this Earth. All I can come up with is this: We should treat every life as precious, and strive to honor those in our lives. We should live in the present, giving our attention fully to those we are sitting with, commuting with, working with, or to those whom we are speaking. We should stop checking our emails when we are engaged with someone in conversation. We should put away our cell phones when we are in the grocery store checkout and say hello to the cashier and the person bagging our groceries.
We should honor the fact that both on the cushion and in life, people are entitled to their own experience, but there is a time to connect in a shared moment of humanity.
Sitting on the cushion, our minds can wander to a myriad of things. Some strike us as funny, some as worrisome, some as sad, much of it mundane. But all are real and a part of life. We inhale and we exhale until we don’t. Until breath ceases and our bodies die.
Be in peace, dear Mark. I will miss sitting beside you on the cushion.